When I was growing up, my father never entered the kitchen of our home except to prepare his evening martini. My mother was the sole cook for our family, unless you count my occasional efforts at making chocolate chip cookies, diligently following the recipe on the bag of Nestle’s Toll House chocolate. I’d like to say I had an interest in culinary matters at that early age, but truth be told, I only wanted to sneak mouthfuls of the dough, which was depleted by a third by the time the actual baking began.
In college we were catered to — literally — so we never cooked, but in law school there was one guy who had a girlfriend still in college who would drift down from Sarah Lawrence on weekends and hang out in our decrepit graduate dorm at Columbia and bring fancy hors d’oeuvres, a phrase I’d by then heard but associated mainly with celery stalks slathered with my mother’s French onion dip. The girlfriend had a completely different concept of hors d’oeuvres, involving exotic goat cheeses and jams from little glass pots and crackers from France and little pillows of spanokopita warmed on our illegal hot plates. This wasn’t cooking per se, but we considered our classmate preposterously lucky to have such a girlfriend, as most of us were either between liaisons or awaiting our first, and neither of mine had shown the slightest interest in preparing snacks for me.
I graduated from law school and began working on Wall Street and got a studio apartment in the Village, and soon realized that there were basically only two ways I was going to get a regular evening meal: either by working late at the law firm and having them pay for dinner at a fancy place downtown, which was fun for about a month, or by learning to cook. But cooking for one was even less fun than yet another lonely dinner at Delmonico’s, and when I really had no alternative, there was always the prepared food section at Balducci’s over on Sixth Avenue, which could be counted on to have something starchy and expensive, like macaroni and cheese, to which I would add a couple of broccoli florets in wan gesture toward a balanced meal.
It wasn’t till I was a divorced father of a young child that the culinary rubber met the road. By then I’d moved into a one-bedroom on Gramercy Park, and my daughter, who most of the time lived with her mom down in the Village, would come over to my place for dinner once or twice a week. Sometimes we went out — she favored a Belgian bistro down on Greenwich the way some kids crave McDonald’s — but in those days there were only so many restaurants within walking distance of Gramercy Park that had ever served a five-year-old, let alone offered what one might consider a children’s menu, so I began to think about what I could prepare for her at home. I hit upon a recipe from the Times that involved chicken thighs slathered in a mixture of Dijon mustard and honey and baked in the oven. She loved it, and for awhile the “honey mustard chicken” was our go-to meal when we were together. Later, of course, she learned about sushi, and that was that.
If there’s one single act that might turn a man into a cook, it isn’t getting married, or getting divorced — it’s moving to California. This too I did, in the early Eighties, when Alice Waters was inventing what came to be known as California Cuisine. Even for a New Yorker, the profusion of imaginative, sophisticated, yet casual and relatively cheap restaurants in the Bay Area was a revelation. Farm-to-table cooking was such a part of normal life that no one thought of using the phrase. You’d have to be brain-dead not to want to make some of it yourself.
There is probably a direct correlation between working in a highly prescriptive profession — law, engineering, accounting, medicine — and aptitude for cooking, which requires first and foremost that you be able to follow directions. As a boy, much of my time was taken up with building model airplanes, so if I’m good at anything, it’s following directions. I learned a few recipes and began to cook them — for dates, mostly, when I wanted to establish my feminist bona fides, but occasionally when entertaining family and friends. My risotto worked well, time-consuming though it was, the threads of saffron like tiny blood vessels in the eye of a lover. Living there on the Pacific Rim, I learned to stir-fry, learned some Thai. We lived outdoors, so I learned to grill, and the old honey mustard chicken would reassert itself, if only for old times’ sake, when my daughter, all grown up, would fly out for a visit.
None of it was fancy, all of it the product of a plodding follower of directions, the boy with his model airplane kit. I’d come back from a diving trip to Belize with my daughter and seek out Caribbean recipes, return from vacation in Italy with a need for fresh pasta and olive oil and shaved truffles. I began to feel at liberty to change a recipe, usually to simplify it, or to use no recipe at all. Kind of like life.
These days my wife insists on a certain Thai dish at least once a week — she calls it “the turkey meat,” and says that on her death bed she will want it for her last meal, so I’d better be available. I know she feels guilty that I cook as many of our dinners as I do. There’s enough of that old wifely, motherly, culturally-inculcated gene in her that she thinks she should do more of it.
But really, men should be in the kitchen as much as possible. My daughter’s sons, who are about the age she was when I began cooking for her — think cooking is more fun than Legos. Cooking teaches humility, it demands precision, and it reminds you that timing is everything. But most of all it’s an externalization of caring, this making of a meal for someone you love.
Somewhere, in a tiny slip of a kitchen, a young father is cooking dinner for his daughter. Chicken, mustard, honey. Bake at 350. She’ll love it. The rest will come later.